Online colloquium: Imperial Emotions and the De-Colonial Move

UPDATE: Some of the videos from colloquium are available for the next three months (until late November 2021?) at:

I mentioned the other day that I was missing conferences. Well, even before the current spate of lockdowns, I enrolled for this two-day colloquium that was originally planned as a joint face-to-face/online event. With the recent lockdown in Adelaide it pivoted to being completely online, just as the Yarra Valley Writers Festival did last weekend.

The colloquium was conducted under the auspices of the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. If I were writing my thesis today, I would probably be attracted to this ‘turn’, and I wish that it had been more prominent fifteen years ago. Although several of the speakers were familiar to me, I have none of the theoretical background for the approach, and probably would have felt a bit out of place, were I there physically. So, in spite of the dearth of muffins and absence of name-tags, online probably suited me better this time.

The colloquium started with Prof. Jane Lydon speaking on Imperial Emotions: the homeless of empire? In this paper, she explored ‘compassionate emotion’ through two contemporaneous books, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Bleak House (1852-3) by Charles Dickens. We might call it ’empathy’ today, but the term was not used at the time. Both novels sought to evoke pity – in Stowe’s case for slaves, and in Dicken’s case for Jo the crossing sweeper. But Dickens’ book also critiques ‘telescopic philanthropy’, as exemplified by Mrs. Jelleby, who is oblivious to the needs of those around her because she is so invested in distant benevolence. Lydon pointed out that even though readers expressed horror at the thought of Eliza and her child being separated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was little critique of the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

Dr. Jordy Silverstein followed with a fantastic paper: Discourses of ‘Care’: Public Servants, Child Refugees and the Production of National Feelings where she conducted oral interviews with two senior public servants who worked from the 1970s to the 1990s at the highest levels of the public service. We often associate ministers and political parties with particular policies, but we are largely unaware of the secretaries and advisors whose positions are not dependent on the election cycle (well, they weren’t in the past) and who, if they have a lengthy career, work with politicians of both persuasions. She interviewed John Menadue about multiculturalism and Wayne Gibbons about immigration, refugee policy, the Intervention. It was a rather chilling, distubing paper.

Prof. Margaret Allen spoke on Sympathy, disgust and disdain, women writers’ representation of Indigenous peoples and the colonial project in some South Australian novels. She examined the novel Kooroona, published in England in 1871 under the pseudonym ‘Iota’. The author was in fact Mrs. Mary A Meredith, who lived in South Australia between 1858 and 1868. Allen describes it as a ‘sojourner’ novel, which has strong autobiographical elements, narrated by a woman with strong Anglican principles who sees herself as a more cultured visitor to the colony, as distinct from the more aspirational, acquisitive, locally focused Dissenter settlers. Through her character Mrs Vernon, Meredith critiqued indigenous dispossession by these grasping, immoral settlers, but she then turned her attention, much as Charles Dickens did in Bleak House to metropolitan benevolence instead.

I loved Dr Claire McLisky’s paper ‘Colonial emotions’ and Indigenous peoples in mid twentieth-century Australian history writing: Apathy, anger and calls to action in the histories of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw’. She examined closely M. Barnard Eldershaw’s 1939 book My Australia, written as a collaboration between two women writers and historians Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both were historians and both trained under George Arnold Wood at the University of Sydney. However, neither worked in academia, and their My Australia is very different from the other histories being written at the time by male historians. Both were activists, engaged in the politics of the day, and this is reflected in their approach to Aboriginal history in their book. The book began with a prologue ‘A Mask of Australia for Inaudible Voices’, speaking from five different perspectives: ‘Voice of the Continent’, ‘Chorus of the Trees’, ‘Herald of the Future’, ‘The Black Man’ and ‘The Black Man’s Future’ – a very imaginative and perceptive approach. The bulk of the book was divided into two parts: New World and Old World, but in an coda of two chapters, they returned in a chapter titled ‘The Dispossessed’ to critique settler Australia’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. Yet this coda stands, with no integration at all, alongside long pages of ‘dying race’ rhetoric in the body of the text. Fascinating.

The first day finished with Faye Rosas Blanch speaking on Looking through the Frame, what are the shifting sensory and affective relations? There was no written paper for this presentation where she described a photograph of her family standing outside a wooden church at Pinnacle Pocket, near Atherton in Queensland. She did not show the photograph. I assumed that, as an indigenous presenter, she declined to display the photograph because some of the people depicted had died, but that was not the case (information about the church was placed on YouTube by the family in any case). Instead she chose not to show the photograph as an act of refusal, and to force us to “listen” to the photograph. Interesting approach- but I wonder if I was the only one who then looked it up on YouTube?

The second day started with Ass. Prof Sharon Crozier-de Rosa presenting Emotional Politics at Play: Ridicule, Embarrassment and the Limits of Reimagining Colonial Relations. You might not guess it from the title, but it examined the response of British Anti-Suffrage activists to the defeat of the conscription referendum in Australia during WWI, where they blamed women (who had the vote in Australia) for being too emotional in the ballot box. Stung by this criticism, anti-conscription women voters, through their large political organization the Australian Womens National League, moved away from their language of Britain as ‘Mother’ and Australia as ‘grateful child’ to see Australia instead as ‘motherland’. The paper talked about family metaphors in describing political networks and affiliations.

Keeping with the war theme, Prof. Joy Damousi followed with Empire, evacuations and emotions in war, which also spoke to Jordy Silverstein’s earlier paper on child refugees. In this case, she spoke about the child evacuation program conducted under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, which sent British children to Canada, Australia and South Africa. Harry Foll was the program’s most public champion in Australia. Drawing on the archive of memoirs of the child migrants themselves, Damousi has been interrogating the scheme, which definitely preferenced blue-eyed, fair haired, sturdy children, with the hope that they would stay in Australia, rather than Jewish children who were in more immediate danger.

This was followed by Dr Natalie Harkin, a critical Indigenous scholar, who gave a presentation titled Archival-poetic Witnessing/ Decolonizing Domestic Labour Stories in South Australia where she integrates oral and intergenerational blood memories with the official state records on indigenous domestic service in South Australia. Even though South Australia did not become involved in the 2006 Inquiry into Stolen Wages, claiming incorrectly that it did not apply to them, she has found an archive that spans cruelty and brutality through to kindness (although not equality). Historians often speak about ‘the archive’ and their response to it, and while wary of the state archive, she likened it to a ‘medium’ through which the past speaks. She found that the archive, both written and oral, underplayed instances of cruelty, and captured surveillance, the constant hum of anxiety and the threat of child removal. Smells, food, and cleaning agents could trigger memories amongst her oral informants, and she has uncovered letters from parents and the girls themselves, anxious to know what type of white family the girl was working for, and whether she could come home for Christmas.

The final paper by Ass. Prof Jane Haggis was called Imperial Dispositions: Then, Now and Mine: (Mis) Adventures in Unknowing and Common Sense. Unfortunately, the only ‘unknowing’ one was me, because the sound quality was really poor and I just couldn’t hear. From her slides, I know that she was talking about Martindale Hall, the National Trust Mansion (used in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) but I’m afraid that’s all I know. It was a rather incomplete and disappointing way to finish off, and having been a ‘lurker’ throughout, I slipped away half-way through the Plenary Discussion. But I really enjoyed listening to a really strong selection of papers, that fit well into their different themes and yet spoke to each other, and spoke to me too.

One response to “Online colloquium: Imperial Emotions and the De-Colonial Move

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Janine:)

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